The oceans are in crisis. Next to climate change, disappearing ocean life is probably the world’s greatest environmental calamity. And unlike most of our other global woes, the free-falling populations of sea creatures are not related to pollution or industrialization or development. We are just eating all the fishes.
This is not news for most biologists, and neither are the long-proposed solutions: more catch limits on fisheries, new tools to limit by catch, and publicity campaigns to encourage the eating of only sustainable fishes. Unfortunately, none of that matters. Well, okay, every little bit matters; we should also recycle and turn off lights when we leave a room. But these steps are a mere drop in the oyster bucket. When it comes to the future of our seas, all that matters today is China.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (whose data on global fishing admittedly is rough but is also the best available), the U.S. eats about 7.5 million tons of fishes per year. Japan, which has about a third the population, eats 7.3 million tons.
That sounds like an overwhelming quantity—until you realize that China eats a whopping 50 million tons per year. China eats more fish protein than the next 10 countries combined. The country’s appetite is so big that the FAO has to separate its statistics into “World” and “World, excluding China.” China also accounts for 35 percent of the entire world’s fish production.
Thus, although national and international policies to help sustain fisheries are good steps forward, they won’t matter much without China onboard. So far, the picture doesn’t look good. China’s fleet of 70,000 fishing boats—the biggest in the world—is increasingly flaunting the few international rules that exist around fishing. Chinese fishermen have been caught fishing illegally off the coasts of Japan, Argentina, Guinea and many countries in between.
Access to fish stocks is becoming one of the signature conflict issues of the 21st century, and China seems to be sailing full-speed ahead with little regard for other nations. Last year China’s biggest fish distributor tried to take its shares public with a stock offering. In the draft summary it boasted that one of the reasons it would increase profits to shareholders was essentially that, as a Chinese company, it could ignore international rules of the high seas.
The gaff was a major embarrassment and eventually the distributor withdrew its offering. But the company was simply saying what everyone already knows: Fishing rules don’t apply to China. It’s difficult to punish poachers whose boats are owned by shell companies located in tax shelter nations and are regulated by a country that makes it a policy not to regulate wild fishing.
To complicate matters, for the last few years China seems to have used fishing grounds as a proxy battlefield for political influence on its neighbors. In an audacious move the country essentially claimed the entire South China Sea—1,600 kilometers long and 800 kilometers wide—as its sovereign fishing grounds. Fishermen from adjacent countries who dare to venture off their shores worry that they will get captured, beaten and have their boats confiscated.
How is it, you ask, that China can be eating six and a half times more seafood than the U.S. and there are any fishes left in the ocean? Thankfully, about 70 percent of China’s seafood isn’t from the sea at all; it comes from freshwater fish farms across the country. We are not talking a few ponds—we’re talking an area the size of New Jersey. China has perfected the art of pulling the maximum amount of fishes from the minimum amount of water.
In many ways the Chinese freshwater fish complex is one of the miracles of the modern industrial world. But as China’s middle class grows, it may be on the way out. Chinese consumers today are worried that their lakes and waterways are not clean enough to be producing millions of tons of catfish, carp and eels every year—the water fouled by those very creatures as they grow. Increasingly, individuals who can afford it are looking to the open ocean, much the way their gluttonous neighbors across the Pacific have done for decades.
This is what the situation comes down to: For centuries China has cultivated an incredible system of freshwater ponds to feed its population. But a wealthier middle class wants tuna, sea cucumber and abalone from around the world. If the Chinese middle class abandons traditional freshwater fishes, we can kiss ocean life as we know it good-bye. Being from the U.S.—the country that hungrily devoured the oceans for the past 50 years—I don’t have a lot of moral authority to chastise our neighbors across the Pacific, and neither does anyone else. Just walk into your corner sushi shop and you’ll see a collection of some of the most unsustainable fishes imaginable.
In the end, it will take a unified effort between West and East to save our oceans. It will take better, cleaner fish farming in the West and more enthusiastic, sustainable seafood markets in the East. But more than anything, it will take an acknowledgement from both societies that the practices of the past simply aren’t working.
This reporting was supported by a grant from the Mongabay Special Reporting Initiatives program.